No. 11 WVU hoops gets early shot at top against No. 1 Gonzaga

Gold and Blue Nation

Bob Huggins and his 11th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers are headed to Indianapolis to face No. 1 Gonzaga at the Jimmy V Classic for WVU’s first ranked clash of the season. Action gets underway at 7 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Quick Hits

  • No. 11 West Virginia (3-0) at No. 1 Gonzaga (2-0)
  • Tip-off is at 7 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Gonzaga leads all-time series 4-0
  • Last meeting: Gonzaga 61, WVU 58 in 2017 Sweet Sixteen
  • Where to watch: ESPN, WatchESPN
  • Gonzaga is a 9-point favorite over West Virginia

The upcoming contest is a rematch of the thriller between the two squads in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, in which the Bulldogs survived the Jevon Carter-led Mountaineers by a score of 61-58 in San Jose, California. Although the stage is much different, both teams are heading into this one in similar positions in the rankings (before March Madness in 2017, WVU was No. 13 and Gonzaga was No. 1 in the AP poll), setting up another exciting clash in the short history between the two programs.

Just a week ago, however, West Virginia didn’t have this game on their schedule — in fact, Gonzaga was originally slated to face Tennessee before the Vols were struck with some COVID-19-related issues.

“We were sitting there [in South Dakota] watching basketball and it came across the ticker that Tennessee had kind of an outbreak and so they canceled and [Gonzaga] needed a game,” said Bob Huggins. “I’ve been doing this a long time, I’ve got some very dear friends at ESPN, I thought, what the heck, let’s go play Gonzaga.”

Bob Huggins returned to Morgantown from South Dakota with the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic championship and a host of takeaways about his squad — some good and some bad. An early positive was the play of his frontcourt, especially Derek Culver, who averages double-digits in scoring and rebounding to start the season.

A negative, however, was how his team struggled to stop their opponents from putting points on the board.

“For this group, I don’t think we’ve played near as well as we’re capable of playing,” Huggins said. “We haven’t guarded, we haven’t guarded not even a little bit. Compared to what basically this same group did a year ago at the end of the year.”

If the Mountaineers want to start guarding, this is just the contest to do it. The Bulldogs have two scorers who average over 20 points — forwards Drew Timme and Corey Kispert — while the team as a whole has scored over 90 points in both of their games.

To start their season, Zags put up 102 points in a win over No. 7 Kansas while shooting 64.5 percent from the field. Although he’s excited to tip this one off, Huggins says he is not looking forward to guarding their players.

“They’re good, man. They’re good,” Huggins said. “They’re very, very skilled, and that’s been a trait of Gonzaga basketball for a lot of years. They have a lot of very skilled guys. They pass it extremely well, they shoot it extremely well. They shoot it as well as anybody we’ve played in a long time.”

West Virginia did show off a new, improved and deeper backcourt in their first three games. Three of their top four scorers are guards, led by Miles McBride’s 16.3 points per game. Sean McNeil, the other backcourt starter, is not far behind with 13.7.

Taz Sherman has proven to be a valuable asset off the bench as well, scoring 11.7 points per game with a 63.6-percent clip from deep. He has grown into his role as a reliever, and relishes the opportunity to come off the bench and play his own game.

For this game, though, those numbers might as well go out the window. Gonzaga is a different team than WVU’s first three opponents, and the Mountaineers fully recognize the opportunity they have in facing the top-ranked team in the country.

“It’s a statement game, because the way the season ended last year, I feel like we had a good chance to make a run the way we was playing last year,” Sherman said. “This is a statement game for us, we want to show everybody we deserve to be one of those teams that’s talked about in the Final Four and National Championship conversation and that’s why this is a big game.”

Action tips off at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

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